After Sancho, Varane signings, Man United have to win titles. Can Solskjaer deliver?

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Trophies aren’t handed out in July, but Manchester United have at least used the summer to show they remain interested in winning some.

Toward the end of his time as manager at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho came to believe the club were happy simply to compete in the big competitions — United haven’t won a trophy in any competition since 2017 — rather than win them. After walking into one press conference to find no drink for him on the desk, he quipped: “No water? Are we saving money for the transfer window?”

His conversations with owners the Glazers and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward in the summer of 2018 were not so light-hearted. Having finished second in the Premier League behind Manchester City, he expected significant investment to bridge the gap. It never arrived, reinforcing Mourinho’s personal view that the will to compete with Europe’s top clubs wasn’t there, and after a complete breakdown in relations he was gone by December.

Last season, United again finished second behind City, but instead of sitting on their hands, the funds have been released and reinforcements have arrived.

Deals have been struck for attacker Jadon Sancho (from Borussia Dortmund) and defender Raphael Varane (from Real Madrid) for a combined fee of more than £100 million.

Crucially, these agreements have been reached before the end of July, ensuring both players should be ready and available when the new season kicks off against Leeds United at Old Trafford on August 14. It marks a change from last season when Edinson Cavani, who had been a free agent for the best part of four months, arrived with the campaign already seven games old.

Ironically, when Mourinho begged United to sign a new defender three years ago, Harry Maguire and Varane were two of the names at the top of his list and next season, his replacement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, will be able to pick both as his first-choice pairing in the centre of defence.

Varane, winner of three Spanish titles, four Champions Leagues and the World Cup, is a statement signing. The French defender will arrive once he and his family receive visas to travel to Manchester. He will also have to quarantine before undergoing a medical in line with the UK government’s COVID-19 protocols. He is a player United have followed for more than 10 years and they have finally got their man after taking advantage of his contract situation at Real Madrid.

When Varane made it clear to the Spanish giants he would not sign a new deal, and the decision was made to cash in this summer rather than risk losing him for free in 12 months, they tried to bring Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea to the negotiating table, but sources have told ESPN he was only interested in talking to United.

Woodward continued negotiations with Real Madrid during a family holiday, while new football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher — both appointed in March — spoke to Varane to sell him the move to Old Trafford. Sources have told ESPN that Varane was particularly swayed by Fletcher, and a base fee of €39.8m (£34m) plus add-ons represents a good deal for a 28-year-old at the peak of his career.

Solskjaer’s team were the second-highest scorers in the league last season, but only had the fifth best defensive record, and the hope is Varane — quick, strong in the air and good on the ball — will help improve it. Solskjaer has also appointed Eric Ramsey as the club’s first specialist set-piece coach after problems defending corners and free kicks last season.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Woodward had lingering concerns that Varane was using United’s interest to panic Real Madrid into offering him a massive new deal, but there were no such worries with Sancho. It was a deal Solskjaer had hoped to do last summer, but Woodward and chief negotiator Matt Judge believe their patience has been vindicated, having managed to get Borussia Dortmund’s valuation down from €120m to €85m in the space of a year.

Sources have told ESPN that United estimate they have lost around £150m during the coronavirus pandemic, but point to their ability to sign Sancho and Varane during a window when a number of top clubs are relying on free transfers as proof that their financial model works.

Yet two high-profile arrivals will not completely dampen the anti-Glazer protests, which spilled into chaos at the end of last season and caused the game against Liverpool to be postponed. They will, though, increase the pressure on Solskjaer.

The Norwegian, rewarded with a new three-year contract this summer, has overseen two-and-a-half years of relative progress, but doubters will remain as long as there is no silverware to show for it. Even if no more signings arrive before the transfer deadline on August 31, United will be expected to seriously challenge Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea for the title and make significant progress in the Champions League.

Any further additions to the squad will rely on players leaving. The futures of Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira and Diogo Dalot — all of whom spent time out on loan last season — are up in the air. Pereira, who scored an outrageous volley in the 2-2 draw with Brentford on Wednesday, could return to Lazio on loan, but sources have told ESPN the Brazilian believes it’s time to make a permanent move away. Turkish side Fenerbahce are interested.

Paul Pogba’s contract is also a concern and Woodward must decide whether to entertain bids in the remaining weeks of the window or risk losing an elite player for nothing next summer. United are losing hope he will sign an extension and Paris Saint-Germain are circling, although there has not yet been direct contact between the two clubs. Sources have told ESPN that Judge has already talked to representatives of potential replacements, including Eduardo Camavinga, Ruben Neves and Saul Niguez.

The list of targets put together by Solskjaer and the recruitment department prioritised a winger, centre-back, central midfielder and right-back — in that order. There is still interest in Kieran Trippier, but Atletico Madrid have so far given no indication they are willing to drop their £43m asking price.

Meanwhile, plans are already in place to invest heavily in a striker ahead of the 2022-23 campaign with the hope that both Harry Kane and Erling Haaland are still on the market.

Sources have told ESPN there is a strong possibility Sancho and Varane will be the only major signings of the summer. That, though, will be enough to crank up the optimism around Old Trafford that this squad is capable of winning United a first league title since 2013. New signings will bring fresh hope, but also renewed pressure on Solskjaer.

He can only hope his team can meet the expectations spawned by a successful summer.

By ESPN